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Trio Grande: Southern Utah's Theatre Festivals

All the world's a stage, and Zion National Park is among the most dramatic natural players on it. But check out the three man-made stages nearby that complement, rather than paint, the lily.

Tuacahn Center for the Arts, image
Photo caption
Tuacahn Center for the Arts is in a spectacular setting, surrounded by red rock cliffs.

Collectively, the three theaters are called "Trio Grande," and they go a long way toward proving that much of southern Utah is, indeed, a stage. It's a diverse trio, and definitely "Grande:" Shakespeare presented in a reconstruction of the Globe Theater, De Mille-ish historical spectacle presented outdoors in a red rock canyon, and a panoramic Cinemax production on the myth and lore of Zion National Park.

Utah Shakespearean Festival
A few miles north of Zion, in Cedar City, you can marinate yourself in things theatrical and Elizabethan. The plays are mostly, but not exclusively, Shakespeare's, and there are many related activities designed to inform and amuse on the generally Shakespearean theme.

Literary seminars held outdoors in Seminar Grove provide the kind of experience you probably wished you had in college. Tours get you behind the scenery backstage. Talks held by actors, costume people, and musicians provide plenty of general background. And if you're not as well versed as you'd like in the evening's presentation, attend the orientation that tells you exactly what's what and who's who.

Two other activities are even more theatrical: the Greenshows and the "Royal Feaste." Greenshows are held on and around a small outdoor stage, where costumed actors present light entertainment accompanied by lutes, sackbuts, and other Shakespeare-era instruments. One Greenshow we attended included a falconry demonstration. Another had a display of Shakespearean dancing. Wenches in costume selling life-sustaining tarts roam among the onlookers, who mill about or sit on the grass. It's all done in the extra-hearty mode one gathers was rampant in England 400 years ago.

The energy level apparently sustained by the English during that period as they grabbed for gusto must have been possible only through frequent resort to meals such as the Royal Feaste. It's given in a big room resembling a castle hall and accompanied by enthusiastic musicians. Conveying the many courses from pewter plates to mouth is via fingers. Don't even think about smuggling in a fork, although, oddly enough, Handi-wipes are tolerated. Evidently the English still dined in the manner of Henry VIII as recently as the time of James I.

Of course, the play's the thing, and this year's season, which runs from June 20 through August 31, includes Henry IV Part 1, Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors, The Winter's Tale, Dumas' The Three Musketeers, and G&S's The Mikado. Some presentations are in the modern, indoor Jones Theater, others in a re-creation of the Globe, which is more-or-less open air. Information: Utah Shakespearean Festival, Cedar City, UT 84720. Telephone: (800) 752-9849.

Utah! at Tuacahn
In the beginning there was Tuacahn Canyon, its 1,500-foot red-rock walls enclosing a natural amphitheater. And the Heritage Arts Foundation said, "Let there be light and dark, sound and fury, drama and comedy, with lots of music. Let the earth bring forth Utah!, a theatrical spectacle dramatizing the trials and triumphs of Utah's early settlers."

And 2,000 seats arose beneath the desert sky. A state-of-the-art sound system, the ability to summon thunder and flood at will, and several-score actors appeared before the now filled seats. The drama of early Utah unfolded. And the audience saw that it was good. Very good, indeed.

It bills itself as "America's most spectacular outdoor musical theater." The claim is backed up by what happens onstage (a flood, strobe light effects, cannon fire, galloping horses, fireworks, 14 musical numbers), and by the theater itself, built into the postcard-pretty box canyon near St. George.

The plot involves interactions of Indian tribes and settlers in pioneer-era southern Utah. Things didn't always go smoothly; this retelling includes elements of John Wayne western, Broadway musical, Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, and more than a touch of De Mille. It seems there was right and wrong on both sides, but progress eventually triumphed over pride and pig-headedness, an event celebrated with galloping horses and a 4th of July finale. It really is quite a show.

The 1996 Utah! season runs from June 14 through October 5. Those in the front row or two may participate in the flood more realistically than they'd like. For information, contact Tuacahn, P.O. Box 1996, St. George, Utah 84771-1996. Telephone (800) 746-9882.

Treasure of the Gods at Zion Canyon Theater
Zion is a big and varied park, full of formations that easily can inspire, in the geology-challenged, questions of how all this came to beóand why. Mysticism comes easily at Zion, especially if you watch this 40-minute presentation before going in.

It's one of those high-tech productions, with a screen six stories high augmented by "High Definition Surround Sound," the kind that seems tangible as well as extremely audible. Part drama, part reality, the film includes the ancient Anasazi Indians, Spanish explorers, the exploits of a 19th century explorer/photographer, and modern visitors.

As the film moves through time, it also moves throughout the park, so the exploration is geographic as well as chronological. The production's unusual technical quality and the theater's steeply-banked seating that makes sure you're up close, enhance the occasionally surreal proceedings on screen.

Shows are given daily year-round, beginning every hour on the hour from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (11 a.m. to 7 p.m. November-February). Zion Canyon Theater Box Office, 145 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, Utah 84767. (801) 772-2400.

Photography courtesy of Tuacahn Center for the Arts

This article was first published in May 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.